If you’re triggered by the sight and sound of guns (even prop replicas), it’d be wise to skip the Classic Stage Company’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s strange and stirring Assassins. Rifles and revolvers get plenty of play. That said, missing this show would be a shame — if you can snag a ticket. Set to open 19 months ago but delayed by the pandemic, director and designer John Doyle’s take on this darkly humorous slice of history is tight, insightful, and impeccably performed. It aims, fires, and hits the mark.
Connecting the dots — and the bullet casings — between a motley crew of crazies who murdered or tried to kill American presidents is an out-there idea. Making John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr., Squeaky Fromme, and other homicidal types sing as a musical? That’s doubling down. That’s the point. Sondheim and bookwriter John Weidman built a show to provoke.
Assassins did that in its 1990 premiere off Broadway, its Tony Award-winning staging in 2004, and its Encores! Off-Center series run in 2017. The musical doesn’t celebrate or glorify assassins, but provides food for thought about how their dreams and motivations to pull the trigger were forged and nurtured by American culture and our nation’s less-than-perfect union. A lyric that stubbornly sticks in the head refers to Booth but transcends him and is evergreen: “Every now and then the country goes a little wrong.” It’s a point, unfortunately, that always rings true. A last-minute projection in this revival drives that point home.
Structurally, the show unfurls as a musical revue, if not a semi-burlesque. The Proprietor (Eddie Cooper) sets things in motion, reminding members of the murderous mob that “Everybody’s got a right to their dreams.” Even when the visions turn deadly. Sondheim’s often-hummable songs ably mirror music the period from which the real-life figures emerge.
Doyle’s starry cast of Broadway veterans slay. Steven Pasquale brings a sinister sexy charm as the self-aggrandizing Booth, while Ethan Slater nails his roles as the amiable guitar-strumming Balladeer threaded throughout the piece and John F. Kennedy killer Oswald. Andy Grotelueschen, in a soiled Santa Suit, is a laugh-inducing gift that keeps on giving as Samuel Byck, who recorded plans to undo Richard Nixon via a plane crash.
Tavi Gevinson, as Charles Manson-mad Squeaky, and Judy Kuhn, as the firearm fumbling Sara Jane Moore, play wannabe Gerald Ford killers and make a scene that revolves around Kentucky Fried Chicken a crackling highlight. “Unworthy of Your Love,” Gevinson’s duet with Adam Chanler-Berat as Hinckley, delights as it showcases their talents and Sondheim’s flair for sweet melodies and sicko romantic sentiments. “Let me feel fire, let me drink poison … ” sings Squeaky, whose extreme lengths would make Passion’s Fosca sit up and take notice.
Will Swenson, Wesley Taylor, and Brandon Uranowitz shine, respectively, as Charles Guiteau, who killed James Garfield; Giuseppe Zangara, who tried to murder Franklin D. Roosevelt; and Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated William McKinley.
In addition to a prominent presidential seal that turns into a target, the star-spangled banner dominates Doyle’s scenic design. A flag is painted across the entire stage, a flag design is on masks worn by the cast, and flags that bleed in theatrical fashion are used ceremonially. It’s an evocative and unifying choice. By the end of the show killers and would-be assassins have wiped their feet and noses all over the stars and stripes. Doyle departs as CSC’s artistic director in 2022. Judging by this show, he’s going out with a bang.
Photo credit: The company of Assassins. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)